The first true day of March Madness has returned after a two-year hiatus, and the men’s NCAA Tournament first round is undoubtedly delivering the excitement tied to its moniker.
Whether it’s No. 15 seed Oral Roberts stunning No. 2 Ohio State in overtime or North Texas shocking Purdue in OT, the madness is back in full swing as we await more bracket-busting. Even if it’s been at the expense of the Big Ten.
No. 1 seeds Illinois and Baylor looked like national title contenders against inferior opponents, while No. 11 seed Syracuse looked like the better seed in beating No. 6 San Diego State and No. 12 seed Oregon State continued its winning momentum in an upset over No. 5 Tennessee. Here’s a look at some key takeaways from the first leg of games Friday:
Villanova. A trendy upset pick in this year’s NCAA Tournament was Winthrop over a susceptible Villanova team that just lost Big East player of the year Collin Gillespie to injury before the tournament began. Well, the Wildcats (17-6) silenced doubters and all those who picked Winthrop to be a Cinderella against them by shaking off the Eagles 73-63. Villanova still has a dominant player in Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (22 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) to give coach Jay Wright a shot at making a seventh Sweet 16.
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Oklahoma State. It wasn’t projected No. 1 NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham’s best game, but the Cowboys did enough collectively to end Liberty’s upset bid in a 69-60 win. Cunningham finished with 15 points on 3-for-14 shooting but made clutch free-throws and a dagger 3-pointer in the closing minutes. Anthony Anderson III paced OSU with 21 points, seven rebounds and four steals.
Syracuse. The Orange (17-9) made the seeds look reversed in upsetting San Diego State 78-62. That blowout was driven by Buddy Boeheim’s 30 points off 7-for-10 shooting from three-point range. Coach Jim Boeheim has a team capable of getting to the Sweet 16, and one that hardly looks like the team that was on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble several weeks ago.
Loyola-Chicago. The No. 8-seeded Ramblers (25-4) took advantage of No. 9 Georgia Tech’s best player, Moses Wright, being out due to COVID-19. Loyola-Chicago used a balanced effort, paced by Lucas Williamson’s 21 points, to dispatch the Yellow Jackets. Loyola is no longer considered a Cinderella given what coach Porter Moser did in getting this program to the Final Four in 2018. Plus, the Ramblers lead the nation in defense this season.
Baylor. The Bears (23-2) bulldozed past Hartford 79-55 for the first-round win one would expect given Baylor’s hard-earned No. 1 seed this year as the second-best team in the tourney behind Gonzaga. MaCio Teague paved the way in this one with 22 points, and coach Scott Drew has three of the best guards in the entire tournament in Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and Teague.
Illinois. The No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, Illinois played its best brand of basketball in handily dispatching Drexel 78-49. Ayo Dosunmu, USA TODAY Sports’ national player of the year, paced the Fighting Illini (24-6) with 17 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Coach Brad Underwood has this team peaking at just the right time, as Illinois has won 15 of 16.
Houston. The Cougars (25-3) steamrolled No. 15 seed Cleveland State to avoid an Ohio State-esque upset. Houston is a No. 2 seed that’s a Final Four dark-horse in the Midwest Region but hasn’t been getting tons of love in expert brackets. Perhaps its 31-point drubbing can alter that narrative, however slightly. Quentin Grimes, the AAC player of the year, finished with 18 points in the win.
Florida. The No. 7-seeded Gators trailed by six at halftime and then failed to put the game away as No. 10-seeded Virginia Tech forced overtime. But coach Mike White’s team kept its composure to win 75-70 and advance to the second round. Tre Mann’s 3-pointer with 25 seconds left sealed the win, while big man Colin Castleton’s 19 points fueled UF in the victory.
The entire First Four on Thursday. While Drake’s 53-52 win over Wichita State and UCLA’s 86-80 victory over Michigan State delivered early excitement between two No. 11 seeds in play-in games, even the matchups between No. 16 seeds were enthralling, with Texas Southern beating Mount St. Mary’s 60-52 and Norfolk State edging Appalachian State 54-53. That’s a tie for the closest margin of points– 16 – in the First Four.
Purdue. The Boilermakers (18-10) had won five of six and were one of the hottest teams in the country’s best conference (according to NET score). That didn’t matter in a 78-69 overtime loss to a North Texas team that hardly plays like a mid-major. The Conference USA winner controlled the tempo virtually all game, making Purdue look like the underdog. By the time the Boilermakers scored their first bucket in OT, it was too late.
Ohio State. The Buckeyes (21-10) were once in consideration for a No. 1 seed in bracketology, and oh how they would’ve preferred a No. 16 seed on Friday when they became the best seed to fall as Oral Roberts staged a Cinderella run against them. E.J. Liddell played his heart out, finishing with 23 points and 13 rebounds, but this game was destined to go the Golden Eagles’ way. OSU was a national title contender and a No. 2-seeded, national title-capable team hasn’t lost like this since Michigan State in 2016 when Middle Tennessee State played spoiler.
North Carolina. The Tar Heels (18-11) got obliterated by Wisconsin 85-62 in an No. 8 vs. No. 9 seed battle in which they were the favorite to draw Baylor in the second round. They were never close against a Big Ten team that was trending downward, having lost seven of 10. It’s been a bad year for blue-bloods, with Duke and Kentucky missing the NCAA Tournament altogether. Now, UNC is going home after just one game.
Tennessee. The Volunteers (18-9) fell victim to a red-hot Oregon State team that hardly looked the part of a No. 12 seed after surprisingly winning the Pac-12 tournament for the league’s automatic bid. As much as this outcome was about the Beavers thriving, it was also about Tennessee going completely cold. The Volunteers scored 56 points and shot 19% from 3-point range.
Morehead State. The Eagles (23-7) had West Virginia on the ropes early but were unable to generate enough offense to pull off the upset against an underrated No. 3 seed. WVU coach Bob Huggins doesn’t have as strong of a defense as he’s had in years past but his team’s offense is stellar this year. Morehead State paid the price, giving up 30 points to Miles McBride.
Clemson. The No. 7-seeded Tigers (16-8) started off strong early, but couldn’t find a rhythm offensively late in the game, as former bubble team Rutgers hung on for a 60-56 win. Clemson had won six of seven entering the postseason but lost in the ACC tournament to bottom-feeder Miami (Fla.).
Colgate. The No. 14-seeded Raiders (14-2) were outmatched by No. 3 Arkansas, failing to pull off a major upset and give the NCAA Tournament its first true Cinderella in two years. But the 85-68 score doesn’t indicate how close Colgate was to doing so, leading by 14 points in the first half when leading scorer Jordan Burns (13 second-half points) was scoreless. Arkansas coach Eric Musselman smartly kept his more athletic team in pressuring mode to switch the tempo any time hot-shooting Colgate would start to pull away. Justin Smith’s 29 points and 13 rebounds didn’t hurt the Razorbacks’ cause, either.
Utah State. The No. 11-seeded Aggies (20-8), who barely squeezed into the field of 68 as a bubble at-large bid from the Mountain West, gave Texas Tech all it could handle early on but ultimately couldn’t pull off the upset as coach Chris Beard has too disciplined of a defensive team. USU fell 65-53, largely as a result of 17% (4-for-19) shooting from three-point range and 22 turnovers.
The NCAA. On Monday, six officials were sent home because they left the hotel grounds to get dinner, a clearly outlined no-no under the pandemic restrictions set by the NCAA. On Thursday, photos surfaced of the discrepancy between men’s and women’s weight-room facilities and swag bags. Following significant backlash, the NCAA released a statement acknowledging the differences in amenities in Indianapolis, where the men’s tournament is, and San Antonio, where the women’s tournament is.
On Friday, it got worse. UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma told reporters that his team gets a different style COVID-19 test compared to the men’s team. NCAA president Mark Emmert confirmed the men’s teams get daily PCR tests, while the women’s teams get antigen tests. Emmert told USA TODAY Sports, The Athletic and the New York Times there are no different risks from either test, even though antigen tests are described by the FDA as having a quick turnaround time for results but “higher chance of missing an active infection.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.